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The Oresteia by Aeschylus - an excerpt


Dramatis Personae

WATCHMAN: servant of Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra.

CHORUS: old men, citizens of Argos.

CLYTAEMNESTRA: wife of Agamemnon.

HERALD: soldier serving with Agamemnon.

AGAMEMNON: king of Argos, leader of army against Troy

MESSENGER: a servant in the palace.

CASSANDRA: a captured Trojan princess, a prophet of Apollo.

AEGISTHUS: son of Thyestes, Clytaemnestra’s lover.



[The scene is in Argos immediately in front of the steps leading up to

the main doors of the royal palace. In front of the palace there are

statues of gods. The Watchman is prone on the roof of the palace,

resting his head on his arms. It is just before dawn.]



I pray the gods will give me some relief

and end this weary job. One long full year

I’ve been lying here, on this rooftop,

the palace of the sons of Atreus,

resting on my arms, just like a dog.

I’ve come to know the night sky, every star,

the powers we see glittering in the sky,

bringing winter and summer to us all,

as the constellations rise and sink.

I’m still looking for that signal flare,                                                             10

the fiery blaze from Troy, announcing

it’s been taken. These are my instructions                                                                 [10]

from the queen. She has a fiery heart,

the determined resolution of a man.

When I set my damp, restless bed up here,

I never dream, for I don’t fall asleep.

No. Fear comes instead and stands beside me,

so I can’t shut my eyes and get some rest.

If I try to sing or hum a tune,

something to do instead of trying to sleep,                                                 20

since I’m always awake, I start to weep,

as I lament what’s happened to this house,

where things are not being governed well,

not like they used to be. How I wish

my watching could end happily tonight,                                                                    [20]

with good news brought by fire blazing

through this darkness.

[The signal fire the Watchman has been waiting for suddenly

appears. The Watchman springs to his feet]


                                        Fire gleaming in the night!

What a welcome sight! Light of a new day—

you’ll bring on many dancing choruses

right here in Argos, celebrations                                                                   30

of this joyful news. [Shouting] It’s over! It’s over!

I must call out to wake the queen,

Clytaemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife,

to get her out of bed, so she can raise

a shout of joy as soon as possible

inside the palace, welcoming this fire—

if indeed the city of Troy’s fallen,

as this signal fire seems to indicate.                                                                            [30]

For my part, I’ll start things off by dancing,

treating my king’s good fortune as my own.                                               40

I’ve had a lucky dice roll, triple six,

thanks to this fiery signal . . . .

[His mood suddenly changes to something much more hesitant]


                                                                But I hope

the master of this house may come home soon,

so I can grasp his welcome hand in mine.

As for all the rest, I’m saying nothing.

A great ox stands on my tongue. But this house,

if it could speak, might tell some stories.

I speak to those who know about these things.

For those who don’t, there’s nothing I remember.

[The Watchman goes down into the house. Enter the Chorus of

Argive elders, very old men who carry staves to help them stand up.

As they speak, servants come out of the palace and light oil lamps in

offering to the statues of the gods outside the palace doors]


1Menelaus and Agamemnon are joint kings in Argos. Agamemnon is the senior

of the two. Alexander is an alternative name for Paris of Troy, who ran off

with Helen, Menelaus’ wife, and thus started the Trojan War.


It’s now ten years since Menelaus,                                                              50           [40]

Priam’s great adversary,

and lord Agamemnon,

two mighty sons of Atreus,

joined by Zeus in double honours—

twin thrones and royal sceptres—

left this country with that fleet,

a thousand Argive ships,

to back their warrior cause with force,

hearts screaming in their battle fury,

two eagles overwhelmed by grief,                                                                 60

crying for their young—wings beating                                                                      [50]

like oars, they wheel aloft,

high above their home, distressed

because they’ve lost their work—

their fledglings in the nest are gone!

Then one of the supreme powers—

1Menelaus and Agamemnon are joint kings in Argos. Agamemnon is the senior of the two. Alexander is an alternative name for Paris of Troy, who ran off with Helen, Menelaus’ wife, and thus started the Trojan War.

Apollo, or Pan, or Zeus—

hears the shrill wailing cry,

hears those screaming birds,

who live within his realm,                                                                                70

and sends a late-avenging Fury

to take revenge on the transgressors.

In just that way, mighty Zeus,                                                                                      [60]

god of hospitality,

sends those sons of Atreus

against Alexander, son of Priam—

for that woman’s sake, Helen,

the one who’s had so many men,

condemning Trojans and Danaans

to many heartfelt struggles, both alike,                                                         80

knees splintering as the fighting starts.1

Now things stand as they stand.

What’s destined to come will be fulfilled,

and no libation, sacrifice, or human tears

will mitigate the gods’ unbending wrath

of sacrifice not blessed by fire.

But as for us, whose old bodies

confer no honour, who were left behind

when the army sailed so long ago,

we wait here, using up our strength                                                             90

to support ourselves with sticks,

like children, whose power,

though growing in their chests,

is not yet fit for Ares, god of war.

And so it is with old men, too,

who, when they reach extreme old age,

wither like leaves, and go their way

three-footed, no better than a child,                                                                            [80]

as they wander like a daydream.

But you, daughter of Tyndareus,                                                                 100

queen Clytaemnestra,

what’s going on? What news?

What reports have you received

that lead you to send your servants out

commanding all this sacrifice?

For every god our city worships—

all-powerful gods above the earth,

and those below, and those in heaven,                                                                    [90]

and those in the marketplace—

their altars are ablaze with offerings.                                                             110

Fires rise here and there and everywhere,

right up to heaven, fed by sacred oils

brought from the palace—sweet and holy,

their purity sustains those flames.

Tell us what you can,

tell us what’s right for us to hear.

Cure our anxious thoughts.

For now, at one particular moment,                                                                         [100]


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